Charlotte von Mahlsdorf

In the early 1990s, the GLBT community hailed East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as a queer hero, but she was revealed to be a more complex figure who made unsavory compromises to survive under two repressive regimes.Born Lothar Berfelde in the Berlin suburb of Mahlsdorf in 1928, von Mahlsdorf showed a preference for women’s clothing at an early age. Von Mahlsdorf (who referred to herself in the feminine) had a tyrannical father who forced her to join the Hitler Youth, but she found more support from her mother and her Aunt Louise, a crossdressing lesbian. Von Mahlsdorf later claimed that in order to protect her family from further abuse, she bludgeoned her father to death in his sleep with a rolling pin. She was sentenced to four years in a youth prison, but was released early when the Nazi regime collapsed in 1945.In her late teens, von Mahlsdorf began crossdressing full time. Though she identified as a transvestite rather than a transsexual, she described herself as a female soul in a male body. Favoring drab clothing, simple jewelry, and no makeup, she did not pass convincingly as a woman as she aged.“I am what I am,” von Mahlsdorf wrote. “Mostly, I wear an apron and a bandanna, and I am satisfied being a housemaid.”From the time she was a child, von Mahlsdorf had an avid interest in junk-collecting, amassing household items such as furniture, clocks, and phonographs. She held a job at a second-hand store as a teenager. Over the years, she accumulated possessions from Jews fleeing the Nazis; families sent to concentration camps; homes abandoned during World War II; and later, East Germans escaping to the West.After the war, von Mahlsdorf acquired an old manor house in Mahlsdorf, where, in 1960, she opened the Grunderzeit Museum, showcasing items from the late 1800s. In the basement, she re-created the Mulack-Ritze—a Weimar-era nightclub frequented by gays, transvestites, prostitutes, and S/M aficionados—which in the 1970s became an important gathering place for the nascent local gay and lesbian movement.During the years of German reunification in the early 1990s, Von Mahlsdorf was hailed by the GLBT community as an eccentric celebrity. In 1992, she published her autobiography, Ich bin meine eigene Frau (I Am My Own Woman or I Am My Own Wife), which was followed by a documentary film of the same name by Rosa von Praunheim. Reportedly, the title derived from von Mahlsdorf’s reply when her mother pressured her to marry. Over the years, von Mahlsdorf had a series of long-term romantic relationships with men, and pursued an active sex life into her 60s.In 1992, author Doug Wright began interviewing von Mahlsdorf, and researching her life for a play. He discovered numerous discrepancies in her life story. As well, files from the recently opened state archives revealed that she had acted as an informant for the Stasi secret police. Von Mahlsdorf was vilified when the media got wind of the information. In 1997, she left Germany for Sweden. Von Mahlsdorf died of heart failure during a visit to Berlin in 2002. Wright’s play, also entitled I Am My Own Wife, premiered on Broadway in 2003, garnering widespread acclaim and numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at [email protected].

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